She sat there, purple crayon clutched in her shriveled fingers, her brow furrowed in concentration. It broke my heart. All around her, the other women (and one man) were busy with paintbrushes creating their own versions of a beautiful autumn scene, but my mother was reduced to trying to stay in the lines of a preschool coloring book.
How did this happen? How did God allow my mother, a woman who served others her entire life, taught Sunday school for thirty years, sang in the choir, and nursed everyone in our entire town back to health at one time or another, end up like this?
Her name was Ruth. I wish you could have known her in her younger days. She told me her stories and I cherish each and every one of them.
Ruth knew she wanted to be a nurse from the time she was small. Her mother had a congenital heart condition that made her frail. She was not too frail to birth six children, but her body lacked the strength to live long enough to raise them. My mother was the middle girl of five, followed shortly thereafter by a younger sister and the first (and last) son. She grew up in the shadow of her mother’s condition. You might think it would escape a child’s notice, but not Ruth. She noticed everything–changes in breathing, her mother’s gray pallor, her fatigue. She would tell anyone who would listen that she was going to be a nurse (girls didn’t think about becoming doctors in those days) when she grew up and when they asked why she’d tell them, “So I can take care of my mother.”
The heart condition had other effects on the children. Theirs was a quiet household. Their mother couldn’t run and play with them. They didn’t plan strenuous outings. Instead, she taught all the girls to bake and sew. They sang around the piano. They played cards. Her daughters also did the shopping and learned to clean house. It was a necessity since their mother wasn’t able to keep up with the housework. All the girls pitched in. It was expected.
Sometimes their mother’s weakness caused personal hurt. To Ruth’s great shame she had once thrown a tantrum when her mother baked her a birthday cake in a sheet cake pan. You see, birthdays were special and the Williams kids always got a round layer cake for their birthdays, but that year her mother hadn’t felt up to the extra work and so the pedestrian oblong cake with its single shabby layer was offered instead. My mother, only eight at the time, didn’t understand and sobbed copious child tears of grief over the slight. Years later, after her mother’s death (of more accurately because of it) Ruth was filled with agonizing regret over the incident, and the guilt her mother likely felt. Had her mother lived, it would no doubt have been something they would have laughed about in later years but because she died so young, the memory played over and over, searing itself into Ruth’s brain, forever reminding her of unintended cruelty.
Ruth’s mother died when she was fifteen. She and her sister had gone to a church picnic. They’d had a wonderful time and were walking home when they noticed a crowd gathered in front of her house. The girls ran to through the yard to the porch. A woman in the front yard called to them, “I’m so sorry…” Panic stricken, they pushed passed the neighbors and into the house. Their siblings stood in the parlor silent tears running down their cheeks.
Ruth didn’t remember where her father was on that day, she only knew that no one had come to get them to say good-bye. No one had come to tell her that her mother had taken a bad turn. She had to find out from a stranger on the front lawn. She hadn’t said “good-bye”. She wasn’t with her brother and sisters.
She hadn’t said good-bye.